The Successful Survivor: The Widow's Journey

by Richard O’Boyle, Publisher
More About Richard…

Author’s Note: The terms surviving spouse, survivor, widow, and widower are used interchangeably in this article in an effort to present a balanced view of the experience of both men and women who lose their spouses in later life.

The death of a spouse has far-reaching effects on the survivor. The surviving spouse must cope not only with emotional loss, but also with a sea of changes in daily routines and future plans. While the loss of one’s spouse can be one of the most traumatic events in an adult’s life, research shows that within a year or two, the surviving spouse usually bounces back to earlier levels of physical and psychological health. Widows and widowers can make a successful transition from the loss of a spouse back to a fulfilling life by accepting and addressing their emotions, taking practical steps to secure their financial and physical health, and empowering themselves for the future.

When your spouse dies, you may feel alone and grieved. As a widow, you should openly express your feelings as this will help the healing process which begins with the pain of loss. There is no “right” way to mourn, and no time frame for mourning. Some mourners are encouraged to cry openly, talk with others about their feelings, or write things down. You will likely feel and express a range of emotions, from anger, to denial, to shock, and emptiness.

Support groups equip widows with a new perspective by letting them see alternatives to their problems. Morton Lieberman, Ph.D., a researcher and author of “Doors Close, Doors Open: Widows Grieving & Growing” says, “Regardless of their backgrounds, ages and circumstances, widows who joined support groups recovered much faster. After one year, members of support groups felt less depression and used less medication and alcohol to alter their feelings of sadness. The more deeply involved they became in the groups, the greater their signs of recovery. They became less anxious, had a greater sense of well-being, higher self-esteem, and rated themselves as much improved.”

Immediate Legal & Financial Issues

Most couple’s finances are tightly interwoven after years of living together. Sharon L. Mader, Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, Sandusky County, Ohio, says that some near-term financial issues need to be taken care of now that you are on your own. For example, you will need to take care of business affairs by contacting the following companies and agencies:

o       Insurance companies… to change beneficiaries

o       Credit card companies (joint cards)… to transfer card to your name

o       State Department of Motor Vehicles… to change the title of vehicle(s)

o       Financial institutions… to change signature cards on joint accounts

o       Stockbrokers/Financial advisor… to change jointly owned investments

o       Attorney… to update your will

Women who are widowed need to plan for possibly reduced financial resources. The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement tells widows to expect that their living expenses are likely to be 80% of what they were before their husband dies. However, a widow’s income may only be two-thirds of what it was prior to her spouse’s death. Pension benefits from the husband’s work generally are reduced by 50%, and Social Security benefits may be reduced by a third or more.

Attorney Melvin Jay Swartz warns, “Widows seem to be under constant attack. Unbridled, laissez-faire selling of legal advice, investments, and tax information has produced a strange collection of aggressive, unlicensed, unprofessional advice-givers. They graze on the widowed.” You can protect yourself by being skeptical and cautious about making changes to your financial arrangements. Not all financial arrangements need to be addressed immediately, so you should delay some actions until you are more stable emotionally.

Ms. Mader also notes that many more decisions will need to be made in the months following your spouse’s death, including locating and having the following documents accessible:

  • Death Certificates: Certified copies can be purchased through the funeral director or directly from the county Health Department.
  • Insurance Policies: These could include life, mortgage, accident, auto, credit card, and insurance policies provided by the deceased's employer.
  • Social Security: The number for the deceased can be found on the death certificate. Call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to determine eligibility of benefits including survivors' benefits for the spouse and/or dependent children.
  • Veterans' Benefits: Check with the regional Department of Veterans' Affairs office about lump sum burial expenses, an allowance toward a private cemetery plot, and a headstone or a grave marker for those who were honorably discharged. A surviving spouse and dependent children may also be eligible for disability benefits.
  • Employee Benefits: If the deceased was employed at the time of death, check with the employer(s) for the possibility of life, health, or accident insurance and possible payment of accumulated vacation and/or sick leave. If the death was on the job, workers' compensation benefits may be paid. Check with previous employers to determine if a pension plan is available to the survivors, and if it will continue or be reduced. Unions and professional organizations may offer death benefits for surviving family members.
  • Will: If the deceased's will is in a safety deposit box (in their name only), it will be sealed and require a court order to be opened. If there is no will, state law will determine what portion of the real property the spouse will receive, and the surviving children will inherit the remainder of the estate (laws vary from state to state). Any property that is co-owned automatically passes to the surviving spouse.

Take Care of Your Own Health

Eat Right

Eating right is very basic and extremely important when creating healthy lifestyle habits. The right nutritional choices ensure that you receive positive sources of energy so you can successfully balance the demands within your life. Proper nutrition depends on well-balanced meal planning. “The wider the variety of foods within the diet the greater the chance that you will take in all the important nutrients necessary for maintaining health and preventing illness,” says Marie Truglio-Londrigan, Ph.D., a geriatric nurse practitioner and faculty member at New York’s Pace University. Nutrients include some fats, proteins, simple and complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water.

While sensible eating is a smart choice for all individuals, researchers have shown that it is even more critical for widows. Research reported in the Journal of Aging and Health shows that older adults are less likely than others to regain lost weight. Thus, losing a significant amount of weight following the death of a spouse can begin a weight-loss trend. While this might not be of immediate concern, continued weight loss can jeopardize overall health and wellbeing.

Get Exercise

You’ve probably heard of the physical benefits of exercise – reduced rates of heart disease and diabetes, improvement in blood pressure levels and protections against osteoporosis, to mention a few, says Constance Serafin, a Registered Nurse and Family Nurse Practitioner at Pace University’s Health Care Unit. “But what about improving balance and strength to make walking and climbing easier and to help prevent falls? What about finding an outlet for your frustration and anxiety? What about feeling better about yourself and how you look? These are less known benefits of weight training and aerobic exercise programs.”

A personalized exercise program can start with something as simple as getting out of the house and walking around the neighborhood. Ms. Serafin recommends that you start with an activity that you find pleasurable and that you have a complete physical before beginning a program. If you decide to join a health club or attend organized classes, you should consult with an instructor before using weight-lifting equipment. Exercising can also provide you with an outlet to meet new people in a healthy environment.

Emotional Health

A flood of negative emotions can be expected after the loss of your spouse, as mentioned earlier. “When the full impact of the death sets in, we begin to realize that our lost mate will not return. Despair, depression, and guilt make us feel irrational and sometimes irritable,” says William J. Diehm, an author who has written on the topic of coping with widowhood. “The tendency is to shun offers of comfort and support, to focus on memories of our lost spouse, or, to become angry at being left. All this and more is the process of learning to live with our loss.”

But sometimes the grief and sadness lasts for much longer than would normally be expected. Sociologist Deborah Carr, a researcher at the University of Michigan, found that the closer the marital relationship, the more depressed both men and women were likely to be after their spouse died. She also found that surviving spouses who were better off economically, as measured by home ownership, were likely to be more depressed than peers who lived in apartments or retirement communities. "Those who own a home may do worse because they have the added strain of caring for a house," Carr speculates. "They may be more socially isolated, lonely, and even afraid of living in a home alone, compared to surviving spouses who live in apartments and have neighbors close by."

To preserve and enhance your emotional health, you should continue to remain active and engaged with family and friends. If you feel lonely, Mr. Diehm recommends:

  • Keeping busy
  • Not spending too much time day-dreaming, thinking of the past, or regurgitating the bad events of yesteryear
  • Counting your blessings, not your troubles
  • Creating happiness for others

As Time Goes By

Some folks are fond of saying that “time heals all wounds” or that gradually you will stop feeling hurt or empty after the loss of your spouse. “Nothing can prepare you for the shock and grief of widowhood,” Diehm says. “It requires working through the various phases of grief and eventually it gets better when one recognizes grief but no longer is paralyzed by it.” Those who have a spiritual outlook gradually come to accept their loss as a part of life’s plan or for some greater purpose. Those who actively engage in living empower themselves to continue to grow constructively as human beings.

Nevertheless, over the years following the loss of your spouse, you will likely have pangs of regret, feelings of emptiness, or recurring memories of happy times. Feelings of aloneness may be exacerbated on special occasions, holidays, and anniversaries when you have gotten used to having your spouse with you or sharing good times with your family. Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D., author of “Seven Choices: Taking the Steps to New Life After Losing Someone You Love,” says that you should continue to express your feelings, especially during difficult holiday times, as well as nurture yourself with a massage or creative outlet.

Many older adults have only known one sexual partner – their spouse. When their spouse dies, that does not mean that the survivor’s sexual life dies as well. Many older adults can and do remain sexually active well into their 80s and beyond. However, after the loss of a spouse, many survivors find it difficult to re-engage in sexual relationships for emotional and practical reasons. “In my opinion, developing a sense of intimacy and belonging is probably one of the most difficult aspects of widowhood. We not only have difficulty meeting the need for intimacy and belonging, but we also are unable to develop meaningful relationships for a wide variety of reasons,” says Eileen Doherty, M.S., Executive Director, Senior Answers and Services, Colorado Gerontological Society.

“Regrettably, too many women will either miss the type of social life with partnered sexual pleasures they might otherwise enjoy, or will begin dating men in a way that does not take sufficient care of their hearts or their health,” says Barnaby B. Barratt, Ph.D., DHS, director of the Midwest Institute of Sexology. “Human beings are meant to get the most out of their lives and if re-entering the dating scene is something you would like to try: Go For It! But always remember that the person who loves you the most needs to be yourself, and always enjoy your sexuality safely.”

Widows and widowers continually take on new experiences, explore new feelings, meet new people, and take on new roles and responsibilities. While these changes can empower you to grow, they can also be limiting. “We are all human beings trying to make sense of who we are and where we are in our environment,” says Ms. Doherty. The process of searching for ourselves is life-long. As we have new experiences, feelings and impulses, we continually change our self-concept.

In Closing, a Poem

In Loving Memory of I.M.L.
By Anita Levine, Babylon, N.Y.
This poem is dedicated to the widows of the world

Widowhood makes you know yourself.
It reacquaints you with silence and loneliness.
It floods your soul with despair.
It strikes unexpectedly like a flashing comet.
It creates dark corridors and solitary towers.
Maybe someday the anguish of bereavement will slowly dissipate.
Maybe someday newly gathered pebbles will form new boulders.
Maybe someday new sandcastles will drip onto new beaches.
Maybe someday cherished memories will remain deeply hidden.
Maybe someday the hot crucible will shape new form and meaning.
Maybe someday the deep, empty well will be transformed into a fountain.
Maybe someday a mother-of-pearl shimmer will be found in life’s oyster.
Maybe someday sunshine will glow from within.

Until then, in steadfast watchfulness, live as a dedicated observer.
Be appreciative of life in all its diminutive degrees.
Strive to rise up and walk among titans.
Nourish and guard your body and soul.
Hang on… hang on… hang on…
Until a new life gets itself born.

Recommended Reading:

 - “Doors Close, Doors Open: Widows Grieving & Growing” by Morton A. Lieberman Ph.D.
 - “The Widowed Self: The Older Woman’s Journey Through Widowhood” by Deborah Kestin van den Hoonaard
 - “The Survivor Assistance Handbook: A Guide for Financial Transition” by Mark R. Colgan, CFP
“I’m Grieving As Fast As I Can: How Young Widows and Widowers Can Cope and Heal,” by Linda Feinberg
 - “Widow to Widow: Thoughtful, Practical Ideas for Rebuilding Your Life,” by Genevieve Davis Gisburg
 - “Widowing: Surviving the First Year,” by Jane Krimbill and Nancy Brown
 - “A Time to Say Good-Bye: Moving Beyond Loss” by Mary McClure Goulding
“Single Again: A Guide for Women Starting Over” Victoria Jaycox
“Widowed” by Joyce Brothers
 - “Seven Choices: Taking the Steps to New Life After Losing Someone You Love” by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.


 - Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement
 - Widowhood: Research dispels some common myths, March 27, 2001,
 - “Re-Entering the Dating World: Getting Sexually Active After Divorce or Widowhood,” by Barnaby B. Barratt, Ph.D., DHS
 - “Expanding Your Horizons: Widowed Persons Service”
 - “The effect of widowhood on weight change, diet intake, and eating behavior in the elderly population.” Dr. Shahar, R. Schultz, A. Shahar, RR. Wing, Journal of Aging and Health, 2001, vol. 13, pp. 186--199!gc=1!gid2=1224!
 - “Dealing with Change: Survival Tips for Widowhood,” Ohio State University Fact Sheet FLM-FS-14-99
 - “How to Cope With Being Widowed,” by William J. Diehm
 - “Talking About Widowhood” by Melvin Jay Swartz
 - WidowNet Online Support Community
 - “Seven Choices: Taking the Steps to New Life After Losing Someone You Love” by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.
 - AARP Grief and Loss Resources


Available from ElderCare Online™                2003 Prism Innovations, Inc.